In 2011, Orlando City joined USL Pro and immediately got off to a flying start, both on the field and in the stands. Over the next four years, the club put up attendance numbers unforeseen in the history of lower division soccer in America. Over the last three years, soccer in America, and especially in the lower divisions, has grown significantly.
In just its first season of existence, Orlando City established itself as one of the best supported teams in lower division American soccer. That first year, the club averaged 5,265 during the regular season at the old Citrus Bowl while most other teams in the league couldn’t come close to that number. In fact, the only other team in the league that consistently drew near the 5,000 mark was the Rochester Rhinos.
Over the next two seasons, Orlando City would continue to raise the bar in lower league attendance with an average of 6,606 in 2012 and 8,053 in 2013. The only season in its USL Pro existence where the club didn’t lead the league was in 2014, Orlando’s final season in the league, when the club played its games at the 5,000-seat ESPN Wide World of Sports while the Citrus Bowl was renovated.
In addition to record-high average attendances during the regular season, the Lions shattered attendance marks during the league’s championship games held at the Citrus Bowl in 2011 and 2013. The first of these games saw an attendance figure of 11,220 while the second drew an astounding 20,886 spectators.
At the time, Orlando City’s attendances were staggering for a club in USL Pro, which forced the hand of MLS Commissioner Don Garber to name the club as the league’s 21st expansion team. However, more impressive than the numbers the Lions put up that season is what has happened since.
In 2012 and 2013, there were only two teams that averaged more than 5,000 fans per game in USL Pro — Orlando City and the Rochester Rhinos. In 2014, it was much of the same, with the Sacramento Republic and Rhinos being the only two teams drawing over 5,000 fans per game (Orlando City likely would’ve been a third had they played at the Citrus Bowl). However, in 2015 that began to change.
During the 2013 season, Orlando City had been working to earn a spot as MLS’ 20th team. Meanwhile, MLS worked feverishly to get a team within the five boroughs of New York City up and running. During the expansion battle between Orlando City and MLS/New York City, the league found that owners were much more willing to pay extravagant expansion fees than they were just a few years prior. So, like most businessmen, they couldn’t stay away and rapid expansion was in the cards.
Seeing that MLS was very much interested in having lower league teams be “promoted” to MLS after the success of the Portland Timbers, Montreal Impact, and Vancouver Whitecaps, along with Orlando City, USL clubs began popping up around the country. And it wasn’t just owners that were getting into lower league soccer.
In 2014, only three teams had an average of more than 4,000 fans per game. That number rose to eight in 2015, led by the Sacramento Republic who averaged more than 11,000 fans per game for the second straight season. Five of those teams were new to the league and four of them were in new markets for professional soccer.
In 2016, a new competitor came into play with unimaginable attendances for a lower league team — FC Cincinnati. In its inaugural season of 2016, FCC averaged 17,296, a number that would’ve competed for the top of the MLS attendance table just a few years earlier. For the first time, two teams in a lower division league averaged five-figure attendances.
Early in the 2017 season, this growth of the USL continues. There are currently 12 teams averaging over 4,000 fans per game and nine teams averaging over 5,000. In 2013, Orlando City’s attendance average of 8,053 was about 2,000 more than the next-best team. This season, that number would place the Lions third and just 20 fans above fourth.
So what does this mean? Well, like with most businesses, timing is everything. The recent attendance boom of lower division soccer is no surprise. When Orlando City forced itself on MLS in late 2013, the league decided to alter its original plan of holding at 20 teams. Instead, it expanded to 24 teams, a number that was later raised to 28 teams.
When Orlando City was named as the league’s 21st team, which changed to 20th team when the league finally admitted Chivas USA was a failed project, there were few cities that saw MLS in their future. But with the success of MLS over the past few years and with the league’s ambitious expansion plans, teams and cities have been joining the USL at an amazing pace in an attempt to claim one of those expansion spots.
Having no competition four years ago, it was relatively easy for the Lions to prove they were worthy to be an MLS franchise. Today, that would not be the case. The league may have very well looked favorably on the city as it previously had no presence in the southeast part of the country. But with Atlanta joining in 2016 and Miami potentially on the way, the league may look to bigger markets that are now showing interest, some of which have shown amazing support for their lower division team.
It’s impossible to say whether Orlando City would still have been an MLS expansion side had Phil Rawlins brought the team into existence a couple of years later. But one thing is for certain, it would have been much harder. Remember, MLS spent $1.7 million in 2012 lobbying for New York City to build a soccer-specific stadium and wouldn’t even send a representative to Orlando until the final Orange County vote for funding. Clearly MLS was indifferent to Orlando as a potential MLS location. Imagine if the club was competing with 12 other cities.
Luckily for Orlando City and its fans, Rawlins arrived with perfect timing and Orlando City was announced as an expansion franchise on Nov. 19, 2013. With a beautiful new soccer-specific stadium now open, the future is very bright for the club. But, looking at the current battle for MLS expansion, one wonders what would’ve been had the timing not been as good.